15 October 2009
A Cowboy Needs a Horse
I never thought much about our “regulars” until I came back from vacation to find that one of them had died. We’ll call him “the Cowboy.”
I met him when I was an intern. He was the anginal patient with known severe coronary disease who had suffered from alcohol abuse for many years. He would come in from time to time; usually drunk, complaining of chest pain. We would run some cursory labs and an EKG, let him sober up, and then send him on his way.
As the months passed, he would start to come in more and more frequently; trademark hat and boots in place as the ambulance gurney brought him in. He had developed cardiomyopathy somewhere along the way and had an AICD placed. He started coming in complaining of it firing frequently and chest pain. He would be admitted and usually signed out AMA after a day or two.
Over the last 6 months, he was an almost weekly visitor to the downtown hospital, but then we started seeing him at the county hospital where we also have shifts. The Cowboy started becoming one of those “repeater” patients that become annoying. You’d see his name on the triage board, sigh, and then go in and ask, “Seriously, Cowboy, what is it today?”
About 3 months ago, though, he really started declining. His prior history of medical non-compliance and signing out AMA was making it difficult to get him admitted even when his heart failure was severely affecting his health. Somehow, we would convince the attending that he really did need to be admitted, and true to form, the Cowboy would get diuresed, refills on his nitro, and then sign-out AMA or abscond yet again.
Recently, though, on one of my admissions, I convinced him that he needed to stay for evaluation by the cardiac surgeons who had wanted to take him to surgery during the previous admission. He agreed only to be told that his disease was so severe that only a specialized center like the Cleveland Clinic might consider his case. He told me this about a week later when I saw him, yet again.
As soon as he saw me he said, “Wait a minute. Before you say anything I did stay, and this is what they told me…” As I was ordering his now routine chest x-ray, EKG, POC troponins and BNP, I looked at the Discharge Summary from his most prior admission. The angio said it all. He had severe disease of his left main, LAD and circumflex. His right was open about 80%. Basically, the Cowboy was surviving on one coronary artery.
He lived alone and didn’t have much family support. He was practically homeless. There was not going to be a life-saving trip to Cleveland. We all knew he didn’t have long. During my first shift back I was told that he had presented in fulminant pulmonary edema. One of my colleagues intubated him, but there was nothing else that could be done, and he died.
I tried to think back to the last time I saw him. Did I even pick up the chart, or did I leave it to one of the interns? Did I make conversation with him? Was I polite to him the last time I treated him or was he just one of the “regulars” who is quickly “treated and streeted” to make room for the “real” patients? I really can’t remember now, but I know that he’s a patient I won’t soon forget.
So, ride on, Cowboy. Keep riding; riding, along.